Stay Gold (Book Review)

I’d been meaning to read Stay Gold ever since I enjoyed Tobly McSmith’s sophomore novel Act Cool. I bought it ages ago, and it finally made it to the top of my pile. 

What’s it about?

Pony is an army brat, so he’s used to moving around all the time. This time, though, switching schools feels like an opportunity rather than a hardship. After being bullied at his last school after coming out, Pony decides to go stealth; because he can pass, he decides that there’s no reason to tell anyone that he’s trans. When he meets Georgia, a popular and beautiful cheerleader, his decision to stay under-the-radar starts to look decidedly less attractive.

What’d I think?

On the whole I enjoyed reading Stay Gold, but there were a lot of things that bothered me the more I thought about them. For that reason I decided to break out an old review format: I liked/I didn’t like.

I liked the cover. I mean, look at it! It’s so adorable! I love this art style, and in fact it was the covers that first brought me to Tobly McSmith’s books. Is it maybe a little too cute for the seriousness of the end of Stay Gold? Yeah, possibly. But I still love it.

I didn’t like Pony’s name. It took me a minute to get past what a stupid name “Pony” is, but I accepted it because of the The Outsiders homage (for the record: I love that book but Ponyboy is a dumb name there, too; also, it feels like every time I hear something about SE Hinton lately it’s bad, so…). It’s a slightly tough pill to swallow that anyone would choose their own name and go with “Pony,” especially since he repeatedly teases that it has a good story behind it and then it doesn’t. You might be thinking: didn’t Pony name himself for The Outsiders? Good question, but no. Georgia makes the literary connection but when Pony finally explains how he picked the name it is literally a reference to… ponies, which makes me wish that McSmith had approached the name differently. Like, maybe by naming him Johnny (or Dallas or Darrel or something)—which would have an indirect Outsiders reference for Georgia to grab onto) or simply by letting Ponyboy actually be Pony’s inspiration. In light of Hinton slamming Stay Gold‘s existence, though, I sort of think that the novel would have been better served to move away from that connection, as Hinton—with all her arguably anti-gay twitter tantrums—is a weird public figure to link to a queer character; it’s not quite as bad, but it would be like a trans person choosing their new name from Harry Potter; it’s plausible, but there are, let’s say, better role models).  

Clearly I now love everything about Kaz

I admit Pony’s name is a minor quibble, but I’d be lying if I pretended I didn’t find it distracting. I have hangups with weird names. I’ve been known to put off reading or even skip altogether books with character names I just didn’t vibe with. Six of Crows is one of my all-time favorite books now, but I almost didn’t read it because I didn’t like the name Kaz. Now I love the name because I love the book and the character so much. By the time I finished Stay Gold I didn’t mind the name “Pony” as much as I did when I started, but I still don’t like it.

I liked the depiction of Pony as an army brat in Texas. I grew up in a military family (Air Force) and ended up in Texas, and so much of Pony’s experience rings true. Those conservative values run deep in the military, and that combined with the instability of a life uprooted every few years makes for a difficult and often traumatic experience for anyone who doesn’t conform to a certain, narrow lifestyle. And Texas is just that culture again. It’s rare to go through a day here without hearing something detestable and, often, homophobic. It’s hard enough to be open even when you haven’t been raised in a narrow-minded community and are living in a famously backwards place. It’s rare that I read a story that really nails the military brat experience, and I found it surprising and refreshing here.

I liked the way that, throughout the novel, Pony echoes back the masculine words used for him. He’s constantly aware of the gendered words used for him, and the little rush of acknowledged joy he feels every time someone uses a correct word—son, sir, bro, man—rings very true.  

I liked that there are two important transmen in this book. Throughout the story, Pony and his best friend Max clash over the “right” way to be trans. Max is openly and obviously trans. He advocates relentlessly and takes every opportunity to educate and to further the cause. Pony, on the other hand, goes stealth. He doesn’t want to be seen as ‘Pony the trans guy,’ so he passes as cis and even endures his straight cis bro friends’ homophobic and transphobic jokes to stay under the radar. The two repeatedly argue about this. Max thinks that Pony should come out because trans people are so mistreated that every one of them is needed to raise their voice to make things better. Pony wants to keep his head down to stay safe. 

It’s always great when stories have more than one person from a minority group. It keeps any one character from having to represent a whole swath of people. Not all trans people see things the same way, and Max’s presence and arguments both opens an interesting conversation and signals to the readers that Pony isn’t speaking for the whole trans community. Plus, it’s realistic. For all those people out there who complain about representation too widespread (ugh), the truth is that there are lots of LGBTQ+ people, and they often flock together. If anything, it’s unrealistic when a friend group in fiction only has one queer friend. Queer people don’t want to be surrounded by only straight people!

Also, Max brings up an interesting question. Do people have an obligation to put themselves at risk if being open will help other people? Is being loudly out necessary? Is being in the closet selfish, cowardly, or dishonest? Is being open necessarily better than being stealth?

However I don’t necessarily like the way this shakes out. Both Pony and Max make good points, but I don’t think the narrative gives either argument the full weight it deserves. Max comes across as overbearing. He refuses to acknowledge the danger that Pony—who attends a conservative school in Texas—would be in if he came out, and threatens repeatedly to end the friendship if Pony doesn’t advocate loudly in the ways that Max demands. Meanwhile, Pony’s decision to go stealth is repeatedly called dishonest. His girlfriend actually breaks up with him for it (more on this later), and Pony later has to apologize to her for not coming out sooner (it’s worth noting that he comes out to her of his own volition relatively early in the relationship) and is presented as being in the wrong for not coming out immediately. Considering that she is pretty transphobic, I can’t blame him for not volunteering his whole history right up front. 

Spoilers from here on out. Sorry! There’s a lot in the last bit that I needed to discuss.

The end of the book both validates and invalidates both perspectives. Max refuses to acknowledge Pony’s feelings until Pony has literally been beaten to the point of hospitalization. Towards the end of the book, Pony comes out publicly to pull the heat off some lesbian classmates and is immediately physically (and, it’s implied, sexually) assaulted. At this point, Max apologizes and acknowledges that maybe Pony had a point that coming out wasn’t safe. On the other hand, though, Pony coming out publicly and getting the shit beaten out of him results almost entirely in good things. He gets his girlfriend back (more on this later), his classmates start a gofundme for the top surgery he’d previously been unable to afford, and his previously abusive and unsupportive father comes around (more on this later). The fact that everything ends up working out because Pony came out and was hate-crimed, combined with the storyline about a famous old actor whose greatest regret is not coming out on a big stage when he had the chance, implies that the only way to live authentically as a queer person is to be entirely open and out all the time, violence consequences be damned. 

That just doesn’t sit right with me. Pony has every right to live his life the way any cis kid would. He can loudly advocate if he wants to, but he should also be able to hang out and go to football games and drive around with his girlfriend and not have to worry about making sure that everyone he meets knows he was afab. And he certainly shouldn’t have to do that if doing so puts him at risk of having his ribs broken. If we lived in a world where being trans is no more noteworthy than, I don’t know, having dark eyebrows, sure. There’d be no reason to hide. But the world we live in is full of people who would kill Pony for being trans, who would only ever see him as ‘the trans kid,’ who would accept him only conditionally, who would legislate his rights away. In this world, coming out and living openly comes with a lot of downsides, and decided whether or not to do it is a very personal choice that shouldn’t be judged one way or the other.      

I didn’t like that the novel centers on a relationship between a transman and his transphobic girlfriend. True, the narrative lets Georgia off the hook for her early transphobia, but I’m never quite convinced by her supposed growth. The intent of the novel is clearly to give Pony, a trans guy, the ideal popular cheerleader romance, but it’s really not an ideal relationship.   

Pony, who is very private about his identity and is afraid to come out at his new school because of the bullying he suffered at the last one, comes out to Georgia because he feels he owes it to her in their relationship; she breaks up with him because she is afraid that people will think she is a lesbian. She also accuses Pony of lying to her. It’s pretty gross and transphobic to directly say that she doesn’t want to date Pony because he is trans, but it is even worse when you consider that if she’s concerned that she’ll be seen as a lesbian, at least some part of her now thinks of Pony as a girl. It’s also gross that she thinks he was lying to her. He never lied. Not coming out is not lying, and in any case Pony never said he was cis; she assumed. It’s hard to root for someone like her as a love interest for a transman. Does she have some growth? Eh. In the sense that she gets over the I can’t date a transman thing, I guess. But her redemption doesn’t sit right with me. 

When Pony is hospitalized after getting beaten, Georgia realizes that Pony is brave and kind and decides that she’d rather be with him and take any potential hit to her reputation than stay popular but lose him. She then writes an article for the school paper about the event in which she makes the literary connect to Hinton’s Ponyboy, proclaims her love for Pony, and urges her classmates to rethink innocence and masculinity. It’s a good article and makes good points, but I couldn’t help feeling that it’s a bit manipulative. Yes, he did come out to his classmates, but she has now written an article about him and his identity and posted it to the internet without his permission, effectively outing him to countless people. Pony wanted to go under the radar, and was brutalized when he stood out. (And, for what it’s worth, he didn’t come out because he particularly wanted to in that moment; he came out to take some of the heat off some classmates who had been outed). Checking with Pony before writing an article and exposing him farther seems like the bare minimum, particularly considering that Georgia has now seen firsthand both how dangerous being out can be and how traumatizing it is to be outed.  

Maybe Pony doesn’t want his trauma rehashed in the school paper. Maybe he doesn’t want to be held up as an example. Maybe he wants to just live his life without everyone’s eyes on him. Georgia certainly didn’t ask; she assumed he’d be onboard and went ahead with it behind his back. She also uses the article to announce that she and Pony are a couple, which assumes that he still wants her. He does, but she’s making another assumption. If I were Pony, I wouldn’t want someone who turned me down for my identity and then changed her mind and broadcasted it—and my lowest point—publicly. 

Then Georgia has a heart-to-heart with Pony’s transphobic army dad and somehow cures him of his dickish bigotry in one conversation just by citing some stats about suicide rates amongst trans people. I’m glad he stopped being terrible, but I have a hard time believing that neither Pony nor his sister Rocky (who unlike Georgia is an actual ally) ever gave their dad those stats, which makes this less a triumphant moment for Georgia the ally and more a gross moment about a father who will ignore and belittle his son for years but will listen to the pretty cis cheerleader the first time she opens her mouth. I know that McSmith wanted to give Georgia a bit moment of allyship to make up for her earlier transphobia, but it didn’t work for me.  

However I didn’t totally hate Georgia. McSmith does a good job with her POV, lending her sympathy in moments I’d argue she doesn’t really deserve it. I wish McSmith had gone further in paralleling Georgia hiding her true self with Pony hiding his, if that was the direction that they wanted to go. It’s impressive that I was able to sympathize with Georgia as much as I did considering how many objectionable things she does and how bad a friend she is. I even had a moment where I felt that Georgia deserved better than Pony! They’d broken up and she made some clear boundaries that he kept pressing and stepping over to try to win her back, which made Georgia worry that he didn’t actually like her as a person, just as a pretty girlfriend. I thought that was well done. It made the relationship messier, less one-sided, and that was very much needed if we were supposed to accept the two of them as a couple by the end. Of course, I still don’t think they should have ended up together, but I do appreciate that McSmith was able to extend some empathy towards Georgia, who could easily have been a shallow stereotype.

What’s the verdict?

I really liked Stay Gold. It’s a well-written book with some interesting literary allusions and some compelling and complicated characters. That being said, I couldn’t ever get past my dislike of the female protagonist’s troubling relationship with gender. It’s hard to get behind a transphobic character, particularly as a love interest for a trans protagonist, particularly when her transphobia is never sufficiently called out and her redemptive arc feels somewhat manipulative and cis-saviory. The ending of the novel is also more violent and triggering (not to me, as thankfully I don’t have any real triggers, but generally) than I was expecting. Those two elements did sour the book as a whole for me, but ultimately I still liked it, although it certainly wasn’t the happy trans story I thought I’d be reading. Would I recommend it? Yes, but with the caveat that it might be upsetting to some readers. Would I recommend it heartily? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a read.  

What’s next?

Here’s my list of great books with trans characters in the lead:

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Act Cool by Tobly McSmith

Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Melissa by Alex Gino

I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman

Obviously I’m still working to expand this list, but it’s a good start!

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